I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a study of the most frequently used word in the United States in the summertime, but if they did, I’m betting “vacation” was a top contender, if not the winner. The funny thing is that for all our talk about vacations, we’re apparently awful at actually taking days off work, even when it’s paid time off. Factor in those of us for whom a day of no work is a day of no income, and it’s no wonder that when you ask people how they are, many will say, “I’m so busy, I’m just exhausted.”
Of course, vacations can be pricey, what with all the getting there and being there and getting back. Even camping, which sounds free, isn’t: unless you’re planning to take to the woods with just you and your hunting knife, you need to pay for equipment, campground fees, and food to tote out into the wilderness. (According to some commercials, a nice four-wheel-drive SUV is also a requirement.) Add on the stress of getting ready for the vacation (doing laundry, realizing you don’t have any clothes that will work on this trip, buying all new clothes, running all the other errands, hiring the petsitter, making reservations, figuring out meals consisting of food that will spoil while you’re gone, confirming the reservations, working late to finish all the tasks that must be done before you leave, changing the reservations because your boss absolutely needs that report before you go, explaining to your partner while he needs to make new reservations while you finish up, putting up with his snarky comments, making the new reservations yourself because he’s just a big baby, trying to remember why you even want to be with him, much less why you want to go away with him) and the stress of managing your back-home life from wherever you are (checking on the kids, checking on your aging parents, checking in with the office, checking in with your friends who want to know whether you’ve strangled your partner for suggesting this idiotic trip in the first place), and the surprise isn’t that Americans fail to use their vacation days. It’s that they ever take vacations at all.
In an effort to avoid some of the hassle and expense of a vacation, some of us elect instead to take a staycation. The staycation is precisely what it sounds like: you’re on vacation, but you stay at home. In theory, it’s a brilliant idea. Not only is it a terrific way to avoid the wear-and-tear of hauling yourself from pillar to post, but it saves you gobs of cash because you don’t have to shell out big bucks for airfare, rental cars, accommodations, and restaurant meals.
I happen to be an enormous fan of the staycation, in large part because I rarely have enough leftover cash for travel. I do have credit cards, but there’s something inherently unappealing about the notion of writing checks in November to pay off that fabulous trip I took last April. Also, since I’m a freelancer, I don’t get paid time off. Thus, a going-away vacation costs me twice, in out-of-pocket expenses as well as lost income.
Plus, the truth is that I’m a homebody. I love to stay home with the cats and relax. Neil Diamond and E.T. got it right: home’s the most excellent place of all. So the staycation is tailor-made for the likes of me.
But don’t kid yourself: a good staycation benefits from thoughtful planning. Spontaneity has definite pluses, but not for those of us who have a hard time walking away from undone tasks. For people like me, an unplanned staycation can degenerate into an extended version of weekend chores. Of course, if scrubbing the kitchen floor and cleaning out the basement feeds your soul, by all means indulge. On the other hand, if you’re seeking a respite from your day-to-day obligations, I submit that you’re more likely to achieve this goal if you think ahead and try to get your ducks (or whoever) in a row.
The following suggestions are based largely on my own experiences as a staycationer. They fall into two categories: managing real life obstacles to your staycation, and sorting through the possibilities so you don’t get to the end of your allotted time feeling as though you never got to do anything fun.
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Clearing out real life obstacles
I can’t stress this enough: if you want a true break, you need to take steps in advance to keep real life from interrupting. Granted, you can’t prevent true emergencies, but let’s face it—most things that pass for emergencies really aren’t all that urgent. Many of them can prevented by some forethought. Paying the mortgage doesn’t have to be an emergency.
Here are a few things you can do to keep the outside world from derailing your break.
Set up bill payments in advance. Maybe this means writing checks or scheduling online payments; maybe you want to go ahead and pay now the bills that are going to come due during your staycation. Unless you enjoy bill-paying, get it out of the way beforehand so you don’t have to spend the second-to-last day of your staycation scrambling to get those payments out.
Do the household chores (or have them done). Again, it comes down to what you enjoy. If folding and fluffing is your idea of fun, let the dirty clothes and linens pile up, and indulge. If it’s not, try to do as much as possible in advance so you don’t have to dig through the towering laundry basket every morning when you need clean underwear. Same for housework: trust me, nothing takes the fun out of a staycation than thinking, “I cannot believe what a freakin’ disaster this room is!” each time you walk through the living room. On the other hand, you might decide that your splurge of the week will be having a cleaning service come in to do all the vacuuming, dusting, and scrubbing while you relax in the backyard with a glass of iced tea and the latest Nora Roberts.
Ditto for meals. You may want to plan on eating out; after all, for some people, the best part of a vacation is not having to cook. The fact that you’re not paying for a hotel or airfare may mean you can splurge on a meal at a favorite restaurant. On the other hand, if you love cooking, this might be a perfect time to experiment with recipes that take more time than you ordinarily have. Another choice is to stock up on fixings for easy meals, corral a few takeout menus from your favorite places, and spend your days on something you enjoy more than toiling in the kitchen.
Managing your people
Let colleagues and clients know you’re on vacation. I’m not talking about posting online that you won’t be home. Doing that is like offering an open invitation to thieves: Nobody’s home! Come and break in! But consider changing your outgoing voicemail message and automatic email reply to reflect that you’ll be unavailable until a particular date and you’ll respond to messages at that time. Managing the expectations of colleagues and clients can mean the difference between a peaceful break and a constant barrage of increasingly frustrated messages because they can’t figure out why you’re not getting back to them. As a self-employed person who works at home, I learned early that if I didn’t set out clearly the times when I would not be available—and stick to that—clients would continue to call and expect responses because there was a chance they’d reach me. (If you’re particularly brave, you can turn off your phone’s notifications, just as you might if you were basking on a Caribbean beach.
Prepare to enforce your boundaries. Just as colleagues and clients might overlook your plans in favor of their own, so also family and friends may decide that since you’re not working, you’re available for long, meandering chats about how unbelievably horrible the traffic was this morning, or why that guy your friend likes hasn’t texted back after three days and do you think this means he didn’t get the text or is this what ghosting is, or maybe you wouldn’t mind picking up some of that English cheese your Uncle Hal likes so much and bringing it over because the store is so much closer to you and you don’t have anything to do this week anyway. Nature abhors a vacuum, and for some people, a loved one who’s at home—but not working—is a vacuum just waiting to be filled with the details of their lives. If being everyone’s audience and/or delivery person is not how you want to spend your break, consider working out some strategies for managing these demands, such as periodically checking in (briefly) to ward off inopportune calls or responding to messages with a quick text saying something like, “can’t talk now! will txt later!” (Hint: use one of those apps that will auto-respond something like “can’t text – driving”—and don’t turn it off when you get to your destination.) If push comes to shove, give yourself permission to turn off the phone while you poke around that fabulous antiques store or take a long, delicious nap.
Look into respite care. If you care for a person with special needs, you know all too well that rest breaks can be difficult to arrange. You also know—all too well—that such breaks are essential so that you’re able to continue your caregiving role. Respite care is designed to provide you with assistance so you can take a well-deserved break, secure in the knowledge that your loved one is being cared for while you’re catching your breath. Since arranging for appropriate respite care may take significant time, you’ll want to start working on this well in advance of your targeted staycation dates.
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Exploring the possibilities
With the real-life logistics out of the way, it’s time to look at a few things you can do to help make your staycation as relaxing, exciting, stimulating, and/or enjoyable as you can. (As noted above, these suggestions are based on my experiences. Although I think they’re general enough to apply to a wide variety of staycationers, you won’t find specific tips for family staycations here. Luckily, the internet contains a wealth of articles on this specific topic, so you’re sure to find some fabulous family-friendly suggestions.)
Decide on your budget. The fact that you’re staying at home doesn’t have to mean you aren’t allowed to spend money. To the contrary, since staying home costs far less than a vacation you travel to, you have more flexibility about your spending. If a hotel room for six nights would cost you $150 per night, for a total of $900, you can budget $500 for your staycation expenses, like show tickets, a fancy dinner out, and gas money, and you’ll still have $400 left over for whatever else you like.
Look at the weather forecast. Few things are as disappointing as planning for a week of hiking, gardening, beach time, or other outdoor activities, only to have a front of cold wet weather slam your area. Obviously, forecasts aren’t carved in stone, but if the weather report says a tropical storm may be headed your way next week, maybe that’s not the best time for your daylong bike excursion around a nearby town.
Check out local tourism websites for ideas. Tourism is big business, and there are probably people whose idea of a good time is visiting your area. Why not act like a tourist? Seriously, how many New Yorkers would ever go to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty if it weren’t for their out-of-town friends and relatives who come to town dying to see these landmarks? Spend a little time online, and you may find some fascinating places and events that are close to home. These sites may also let you know about deals; for example, June 8 is Connecticut’s Open House Day, granting discounted or free access to a wide variety of attractions, museums, and galleries. (You can also find a variety of passes to these spots at local libraries.)
See what’s (or who’s) playing. Some events can be spur-of-the-moment activities; others require reservations. Do your research to see what’s playing and when. Will your local baseball team be in town? Is the nearby theater group performing? Are you eager to see the newest action/adventure movie or vintage film festival? If there’s an event you want to attend, consider buying tickets ahead of time. Not only will it ensure you get a seat, but having that commitment will give you something special to look forward to.
Give yourself permission to do whatever. Maybe scheduling isn’t your thing. Maybe you enjoy having the freedom to wake up each morning and decide then what you feel like doing. If that’s your style, go for it. The whole point of a staycation is to make it a true break from the demands of the world. If your days are highly structured, bingewatching Downton Abbey until 3 a.m. and then lolling in bed until noon may be just the thing for you.
Stay flexible, and do what works for you. The best part of a staycation is that you can start fresh every day. If you travel to an exotic island and decide after two days that you hate everything about it, changing your plans is likely to be expensive and cumbersome. On the other hand, when you’re at home, you can take a day trip to the mountains or the shopping outlets, and if you don’t enjoy yourself, no worries—you can do something entirely different tomorrow.
Here’s an example. At the very end of February, 2006, I took a week off. I was exhausted, stressed, and in desperate need of a break. On Monday, I went to my favorite spa for a day, but it was unusually crowded and terribly noisy. I came home disappointed and grim, with no idea what I might do to relax for the remainder of the cold, gray week. (Note: late February/early March is not generally a season of delightful weather in southern New England.)
On a whim, I perused a website I’d recently discovered, one which boasted a library of surprisingly good fan fiction. As I browsed, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed writing such stories when I was in high school. Even though I hadn’t written any kind of fiction in twenty-five years, I began to write a fan fiction story of my own—and I didn’t stop for the next two years. It was one of my best staycations ever.
The ultimate point of a staycation—like a vacation—is refreshment. Whether your refreshment comes from working out, lounging around, sprucing up your living space, indulging your creative side, or exploring nearby places you’ve never had the time to check out—that’s up to you. You can even spend a lovely afternoon composing a blog post about how other people can enjoy staycations. The possibilities are nearly unlimited
Here are a few photos from my current staycation:
Enjoy your staycation!